“Stare into these eyes,” reads the tagline for 1960’s Black Sunday, Mario Bava’s first and most celebrated feature, and a gold standard for a certain tradition of gothic horror. But would Black Sunday still exert its mesmeric power if those eyes didn’t belong to Barbara Steele, the then-unknown British actress who would later earn “scream queen” status in Roger Corman’s The Pit And The Pendulum and many less dignified projects? Steele’s broad-set face, with its Katharine Hepburn cheekbones, porcelain skin, and piercing saucer eyes, evokes an eerie kind of beauty that’s seductive yet otherworldly, and particularly striking in Bava’s high-contrast black and white. She plays dual roles in the film, as a centuries-old witch/vampire seeking revenge and as a sweet maiden who shares the same bloodline, and that face sells both roles beautifully, projecting innocence and menace through the subtlest contortions. It’s a cliché to say the movie wouldn’t work without her—it’s also, in this case, true.
Though Black Sunday was his debut as a director, Bava had plenty of experience as a cinematographer, and that’s immediately apparent in the brilliant opening sequence in 1630 Moldavia, where Steele and her lover are condemned to death for sorcery, but not before hexing their tormenters. The ritual killing ends with Steele wearing a spiked “mask of Satan” and entombed in a mausoleum with a cross over the coffin to ward off evil spirits. Two hundred years later, a doctor (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant (John Richardson) accidentally unleash Steele from the great beyond, and she proceeds to have her revenge on the descendents of those who wronged her. The action then shifts largely to a creepy castle that’s perfectly suited to the dastardly designs of the undead.
Back in 1960, Black Sunday rankled the censors with its explicit violence and overt sexuality, leading to massive cuts in the U.S. version and a multi-year ban in the U.K. By today’s standards, it looks awfully tame in both departments, but Bava’s ornate vision of haunted castles and demonic legacies remains expressive and hugely influential on the like-themed films that followed, from Steele’s subsequent ’60s horror turns to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Though categorized as a horror film—and certainly capable of evoking bone-deep dread in sequences like the opener—Black Sunday is more a triumph of heightened atmosphere, one that’s equally accommodating of melodrama and eroticism. It doesn’t seek to terrify its viewers; it wants to hypnotize them instead.
Key features: A fantastic commentary track by Bava scholar Tim Lucas goes deep into the film’s production and legacy, and a slew of theatrical trailers highlight this and other Bava films.